November 1–8, 2001
Inquirer staff photographer Peter Tobia is on assignment in Pakistan. This interview was conducted last week via e-mail.
photo: Carl Juste/Miami Herald Staff
Q: How and when did you arrive in Central Asia?
A: I covered the events in New York City, which I still find hard to believe, and was heading back to Philadelphia on Mon., Sept. 17, and received a call from Clem Murray, director of photography at the Philadelphia Inquirer, asking if I would be available to go to Pakistan. My wife, Lisa, and I had a conversation before I accepted the assignment, both of us knowing there was risk involved. I spent the next day two days getting equipment and paperwork together and took a train to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to get my visa for Pakistan. I left Washington on Thursday evening and flew to Miami to meet Miami Herald reporter Juan Tamayo. (Knight Ridder owns both the Inquirer and Herald and we would provide coverage, along with another photographer and two reporters, for all papers within the chain.) We left for Pakistan on Fri., Sept. 21, flying from Miami to Zurich and onto Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and then onto Islamabad, Pakistan. It was approximately an 18-hour flight.
Q: How did your family feel about your going? Are you in touch with them on a regular basis?
A: The first thing I did after being offered the assignment was to call my wife and see how we both felt about the situation. Knowing there was risk involved, it wasn’t a decision to be taken lightly. We both had reservations and fears, not knowing what it would be like once I arrived in Pakistan.
With the attacks on New York and Washington just happening, it was a crazy, unpredictable, confusing time. Everything seemed to be moving fast and out of control.
My reason for wanting to go to Pakistan was to provide accurate and fair photographic coverage of history as it unfolded and to show how the events would effect people all over the world. For me it was a professional responsibility. My wife was accepting of this.
E-mail is great! I stay in touch with the rest of my immediate family on a daily basis. Sometimes I will write a long letter describing the day and what happened and ship it off to my daughter, two sisters, brother and mother. We are all very close as a family and I look forward to receiving their e-mail. I phone home once or twice a week, depending what is going on. You need to do things for yourself to keep your energy and mental outlook healthy when away for extended periods of time. I am in touch with the office in Philadelphia and Washington, and they have been very supportive.
Q: Forgive me if this is an absurd question, but what’s a typical day like?
A: "Typical day" and "Pakistan" can never be used in the same sentence.
Someone said yesterday on the bus coming back from Kashmir that [you should] just double the time you are told it will take to get something done. Right now the only constants are anti-American protests on Friday after the afternoon prayer either in Islamabad, Peshawar or Rawalpindi.
Usually I touch base in the morning with the reporters and see what is going on. If there [are] new developments in the war, then we cover what we can from here that is relevant to the story. Calls are made to fixers (people hired to get things done) to keep on top of visa situation at the Afghanistan Embassy. Peshawar and Quetta are the two cities we travel to regularly to cover the news and feature stories. Now that we are waiting for the situation to go to the next level, there is just that: a lot of waiting.
There are some interesting feature stories to do on this area, and as a group we have been productive coming up with ideas that apply to the people, issues and situations in the region.
Q: Do you have a base of operations?
A: Base of operation right now is Islamabad, moving around to Quetta, Peshawar or where the story might be at the time. To me a good phone line and direct dial are key. This can make your life hell if phone lines are bad.
Q: Are you getting much sleep?
A: I worked from Sept. 11 through Oct. 5 straight putting in 10- to 12-hour days. Then things settle down, and you get into a routine and pace yourself. Working those hours caught up with me last week when I got sick and spent a couple days in bed. The pollution and dust in the air contributed to me not feeling well. But you’re caught up in the moment and under deadline, and you just put in the long hours to get the job done.
I just got back from Kashmir tonight, Thu., Oct. 24. Left at 5 a.m. and was back in Islamabad at 10 p.m. Didn’t sleep all that well with anticipation of the trip, which turned out fine. You know, it depends. The night the U.S. started bombing Afghanistan, I knew the next day was going to be wild with protests, so I had all this going through my head the night before. My mind races at times, always thinking, anticipating and working things out.
Q: How much have you traveled in the area to date?
A: Quetta, Peshawar, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Saidpur and Kashmir.
Q: How hard is it to get around?
A: In Quetta you could not leave the hotel without an armed military police escorting you. At times this was difficult because you didn’t feel free. Getting out to the border from Quetta was very difficult.
You had to call the Home and Tribal Affairs Department and put your name on a list. Then the next day you had to check with the military to see if your name made the list. You could wait for three or four days before your request would be honored. It was frustrating and very hard to get work done. Some days you spent just hanging around the hotel waiting to hear. Very much a police state.
We hired a driver who is familiar with the city we are in, and that has worked out fine. After the bombings started, security everywhere was heightened and getting around became a slower process with the military checkpoint. Planes leaving Islamabad for Quetta have been canceled due to safety.
Q: Are you travelling alone, or are you with other journalists?
A: Usually I travel with the other journalist who I am working with. When not with a reporter I travel with a translator or driver. I have traveled a few times by myself, but it’s a lot more stressful, especially not speaking the language. This is an unpredictable part of the world and things change quickly. You don’t want to put yourself in a situation that is unsafe. It’s smart to travel with someone and trust your instincts.
Q: Have you seen or heard much of the bombings by American forces?
A: No, I haven’t, because I am not near the border at this time.
Q: Presumably you’re recognizable as a Westerner; are you ever confronted with pro- or anti-American sentiment, or with personal stories, just because you’re American?
A: I introduce myself as an Italian journalist based in Roma. As Lennon put it, "If looks could kill, it would have been us instead of him." It is an unnerving experience. You feel vulnerable and at times a bit uneasy. I have had rocks thrown at me by kids while walking through a refugee camp. At protests someone will try to get things going by chanting "death to American journalists." I am always relieved when this doesn’t catch on with the crowd. Many of the speakers at the rallies will talk about killing Americans and death to Americans. Sometimes a simple nod and eye contact will keep the situation cool. Having a beard helps, which I do. Dressing so you don’t look like a foreigner is a good move also.
I have not been physically harmed. A fellow photographer, Vincent Laforet of The New York Times, was beat up and had his camera broken covering events in Quetta around the time five demonstrators where killed during a protest. I have heard of other journalists being attacked or [who] have had things thrown at them while trying to work. When the U.S. started bombing Afghanistan on Oct. 7, we moved to a less obvious hotel, fearing we would become easy targets. Some journalists moved into guesthouses rather than staying in hotels like the Holiday Inn or Marriott. It was a precaution that felt right at the time.
Q: Much has been made about how photos and video footage can’t fully convey the enormity of the damage in New York City. Is the same true there?
A: I read one photographer’s account on [Photo District News Online, www.pdnonline.com] talking about photographing the bombing in and around Kabul. He said it was very difficult to "get what he was seeing into the camera." Craters where bombs have hit don’t translate well into images with visual impact. I think of the pictures of the World Trade towers and New York City, and there are some pictures that will remain in my mind for a very long time. Probably forever, which isn’t a very comfortable thought.
Q: Have you been prevented from photographing anything? Have you had to shoot on the sly, so to speak, on any occasions?
A: Yes, at a military checkpoint at Smuggler’s Bazaar in Peshawar I was told not to take pictures by the guards on duty. We were asked to leave a tribal area at the same location. Peshawar is a tough place. It has a dangerous, menacing air about it.… When in situations that are tenuous, it is important to shoot fast and not hang around to give people a chance to gather and take notice of you. You learn a lot by experiencing the different situations.
Photographing women is difficult because they don’t want their picture taken. Because of the woman’s place in Muslim society, getting permission from the husband or father is advisable.
Q: What shots are you most proud of to date?
A: I am not sure "proud" is the right word, but I know what you’re getting at. There are some pictures I have taken while in Pakistan that I think have captured the human condition, which is why I am here.
Q: On any given day, do you set out to shoot certain things, based on what you’ve heard or what your editors are asking for, or do you just work in the moment, so to speak?
A: It is a combination of both shooting certain pictures to go with stories and what editors ask for. But I do think editors need to trust photographers’ and reporters’ judgment because we are the ones that are here.
Information from the office is definitely helpful and can put things into perspective. One of the things I really enjoy doing is to write thoughtful pieces accompanied by pictures. To me that is a beautiful thing.
Q: Do you have any idea how long you’ll be there?
A: Right now I am here with plans to be home for Christmas. Hopefully sooner.